The first rule of knives, in my mother’s teaching, was the most important because it has to do with people and relationships. The rule was simple: Knives are not given but sold. If you think a friend or neighbor (or child, partner, or spouse) might enjoy having a particular knife, then tape a penny to its blade, allowing that special person to pay for the knife and not sever the relationship. Superstitious? Certainly. But why tempt fate, especially when it comes to relationships with other humans? And also, does a bit of ritual not reinforce that a knife, given its potential to cause injury, is worthy of special attention?
The second rule of knives, again in my mother’s teaching, was that sharp is safer than dull, safety being paramount in the realm of sharp objects. She explained this rule not in her kitchen but while we were driving to take her few “good” knives to the knife man (who was also, she noted, the best key maker). The lesson: A good knife man (or woman) is hard to find.
The third and final of my mother’s knife rules was that knives should not go in the dishwasher, because doing so damages both the blade and the integrity of the connection between blade and handle. I’ve failed often enough in following this rule to now understand its importance.
That was it, the extent of her rules, if they could even be called rules. Implicit in them was the understanding that knives, sharp or dull, were tools to be handled with care. They were to be respected but not feared, to be used with increasing confidence from practicing and developing a personal feel for how things worked, tool in hand, skill developing over time.
When I moved into my first apartment, my mother presented (with taped penny) my first “real” knife, a 6″ Henckels that I still have and use not infrequently. I bought a small paring knife to go with it (also Henckels, because it matched), picked up a serrated bread knife at a tag sale and felt almost set, lacking only one like the knife with which I was most familiar, a small tool with curved blade that my mother bought in France (“a lifetime ago” she always said) when she was on the Maid of Cotton tour in the early 1960s. I looked high and low but I didn’t, at the time, know what to ask for, learning only later that it was called a bird’s beak (or tourné) knife.
My mother used this knife, with its weathered wooden handle and matte silver blade, for almost everything, from peeling and slicing fruit to cutting up an onion for meatloaf. It wasn’t the most efficient way of doing the latter, but it was convenient in a kitchen that had extremely limited counter space and no room for a cutting board. Long before I learned to chop with a chef’s knife (a skill acquired in adulthood, thanks to a man who made pesto without ever using a food processor), I learned to use my mother’s favorite knife to cut a neat crosshatch into a hand-held onion, to slice off the layer of little squares into a bowl, and to repeat until the job was done. Professional? Hardly. Skills of practicality seldom are.
Perhaps you’re curious what prompted this particular musing, though some of you already know it was a recent post on The Bittman Project. His intended point was that the era of television celebrity chefs has led home cooks astray, put the emphasis (one might say) on the wrong syllable. Preparing delicious food, he suggests, does not require a Benihana-style knife performance or dicing onions to Le Cordon Bleu standard.
With this central premise I have no argument.
But in support of the title claim (that “knife skills are bulls*it”), Bittman offers this:
The vast majority of meals in the world are cooked at home, by women who have no formal training, who do not own $60 knives (let alone that $1500 Japanese model you crave), who may use a sheet of plywood, a scrap of wood, or a rock as a cutting board — or who may use a butter knife or a broken “steak” knife to cut their food while holding it in their hand, who’ve never been taught how to slice, dice, and mince the “right” way … and who prepare great food two or three times a day. Professionals do things in an educated, scripted way, with reason; amateurs — which may mean “nonprofessional” or “someone who does the work out of love rather than money — do things in other ways, often developed by the rhythms and natural skills that emerge from their own bodies.Mark Bittman, The Bittman Project
It’s true; most of the world’s food comes from home kitchens, prepared by people who have no formal training and no fancy tools, let alone expensive knives.. (We’ll leave the gender part of this for another day, yes?)
And in those home kitchens – mine, and perhaps yours, too – skillful use of the available knives is fundamentally important, for safety’s sake, if nothing else. Knife skills are survival skills.
If you are cupping an onion in your hand to dice it, then you’d damn well better have the skill to do so safely.
Which brings me back to my mother.
I finally acquired my own bird’s beak knife by accident, when my children were little, after my mother died. A friend’s teenage son was selling Cutco knives, and he got paid for every appointment, whether or not there was a purchase. It was easy enough to invite him to the house, let him give the full presentation. “Honestly, I love the one they call the ‘spatula-spreader,'” my friend confided. “It makes sandwich-making so easy when you’re in a hurry in the mornings before school. And you can put it in the dishwasher.”
The spatula-spreader was the first knife he demonstrated, at his mother’s urging, since it carried her full endorsement. The appeal was obvious; it was an instant sale. Confident from that win, he rolled out the full set to show me everything, dollar signs dancing in his young eyes. I don’t have any idea what he said as he was doing so, because a small knife with the shiny, curved blade caught my full attention.
The sight of it took me back to the yellow linoleum-lined kitchen of my growing-up house, where my mother put my hand in hers to teach me the feel of peeling a peach, piercing the skin with the point of the blade and then drawing the blade firmly between fruit’s skin and its flesh toward my thumb, where the blade landed squarely on the pad of skin, leaving the fruit peeled and my thumb unmarked.
It was the way her father, my grandfather, used his pocket knife to harvest a piece of fruit from a tree in his orchard and then, delicately, deftly cut bite-sized pieces for me to taste: Sweet yellow-and-white hybrid nectarines that he cultivated by hand; crisp, tart Arkansas Black apples.
He used this same pocket knife in the evenings to whittle wood for instruments, sharp blade moving rhythmically in his well-weathered hands as he tried new shapes and techniques, carving the wood and leaving his own flesh unharmed. (Another story, that one, for another day.)
From his hands to my mother’s, hers to mine, and mine to my children, that skill is anything but bullshit.
Food | Week of June 24, 2021
Let’s travel back in time, to the week of June 10, 2013, shall we? (Yes; reading Bittman’s weekly cooking ideas has sent me looking through my files, remembering what I used to enjoy making and seeing how things have evolved and ripened over time.)
If you’ve been here since 2013, then you might remember how this weekly post/dinner thing worked, once upon a time, when my children were little and a having plan kept my little family connected in a way that I thought might be important. (“Run, summer, run!” I wrote, on that particular week in 2013. I had no idea how true it would be.) Fast forward these seven years, and our family rhythm is entirely different. Along the way, the habit of routinely cooking weeknight dinner has been hard to maintain. (If you’ve been following along since 2013, then you already know all the fits and starts.)
The prompt to reflect on that personal history merges in my minds with recent thinking about what post-pandemic life could be like. This particular juncture we’re living through presents a magical opportunity to carry forward the best of what we’ve learned along the way. Perhaps the loss and suffering of the past 16 months can strengthen our resolve to double down on whatever precious, intimate, joyful aspects of life we rediscovered and now want to keep.
For me, one of those joyful, intimate, precious things is cooking, whether for my son and his visiting fraternity brothers (“Mom, will you make that chicken thing again? The guys really liked it…”) or just for myself, for an audience of hopeful dogs.
Here’s what I’m thinking for the days ahead, inspired by what I had on the list in 2013:
Cold sesame noodles | Carrots | Cherries
Ginger-lime chicken | Black Pearl mushrooms (from Bluff City Fungi – Cooper Young Farmers Market)
Redfish (no idea how I’ll cook it, but it’s fresh so I’ll have to decide soon)| Kale salad (“the last of the kale until fall,” the farmer said…)
Cold cucumber soup (one of my favorite recipes, as you might already know)
Final note: If you do want to work on those knife skills, then Julia Moskin’s guide, written for home cooks, is good one.